Pentagon chief to travel to Middle East amid Syria cease-fire

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Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump NATO ministers need to have difficult conversations to keep everyone honest Pentagon chief to travel to Middle East amid Syria cease-fire MORE will travel to the Middle East and Brussels this weekend to meet with his Turkish counterpart and other NATO allies following the fragile cease-fire announced in Syria on Thursday.

Esper will leave Saturday to first visit with U.S. troops and international partners, and to “receive an update on the other important operations in the region,” according to a Defense Department statement.

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He will then travel to a NATO ministerial in Brussels “to discuss a host of issues with the Alliance, to include the next steps in our D-ISIS Campaign.”

“I look forward to meeting with my Turkish and other counterparts in Brussels to reinforce the importance of ensuring a lasting political solution to the situation in Syria,” Esper said.

Vice President Pence announced in Ankara on Thursday that the U.S. had reached a deal with Turkey to end the recent bloodshed in northern Syria.

Turkey agreed to suspend its operations for 120 hours to allow Kurdish fighters, who were instrumental in the battles against ISIS, to withdraw from a designated safe zone along the Turkish and Syrian border.

In return, the U.S. would lift sanctions imposed this week on Turkish officials.

The United States is continuing its withdrawal from northeastern Syria, and “no U.S. ground forces will participate in the enforcement of this safe zone,” Esper said Friday.

Critics have slammed the agreement as giving Turkey everything it wants with no repercussions, and within hours of the announcement there were reports of continuing fighting in the border region of Syria.

Trump earlier this month agreed to pull U.S. forces out of northern Syria. Within days, Turkey had advanced into the area and began attacking Kurdish fighters, threatening instability in the region and the resurgence of ISIS.

Trump, however, has insisted the cease-fire is a victory, boasting on Friday that “we’ve had tremendous success, I think, over the last couple of days.”

“Little bit unconventional, little bit of hard love — I told you that, a lot of pain for a couple days, and sometimes you have to go through some pain before you get a good solution. But the Kurds are very happy about it. President Erdogan of Turkey is satisfied with it. And we are in a very strong position,” Trump told reporters at the White House after a call with NASA astronauts.

Esper in his statement also said that he and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley briefed the Senate and House Armed Services committees Thursday in classified hearings on the events that led to Turkey’s incursion into Syria.

“We had a very serious, candid, and constructive discussion about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going when it comes to Syria and Turkey. I appreciated the members taking the time to hear from us, and we are thankful for their continued support to our service members,” Esper said.

He added that he just spoke with his Turkish counterpart by phone, during which he “reiterated the United States’ position that Turkey must adhere to the full terms of this agreement, and that we expect Turkey to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the area controlled by Turkish Forces.”

“This ceasefire is a much needed step in protecting those vulnerable populations. I also reminded him of Turkey’s responsibility for maintaining security of the ISIS detainees located in the affected areas.”

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